One of the great benefits of belief in the supernatural is the calming effect of an afterlife. Many are reassured that their time on earth has meaning, that they will be reunited with loved ones, and that their good deeds will be rewarded, all in the afterlife. Many who transition from fervent belief into doubt find that this, the lack of heaven, triggers the existential dread which accompanies the dissolution of supernatural belief.
There’s now evidence, though, that atheists enjoy some of the same reassurance that believers do. In a meta-analysis of studies, researchers at Oxford found that high levels of religious belief were loosely correlated with lower levels of anxiety regarding death. This tracks from our general understanding of the benefits of belief. But the study also seemed to indicate that this low level of death anxiety was also correlated with strong atheists, indicating a U-shaped curve. This means that both highly religious and highly unreligious people experience similar low levels of death anxiety, while people in the middle, people who hold either belief less strongly, find themselves more anxious about death.
The research is also quite difficult to summarize and many of the studies indicated no relationship between belief and death anxiety at all. Like many social sciences, it is a sticky trick to develop a stringent study regarding such an amorphous concept as “belief” or “anxiety.” But this study raises a question: if one of the most significant benefits of belief in the supernatural is shared by strong disbelief as well, why bother with belief at all?